Prophylaxis and All That

In the Facebook discussion of Hugh Patterson’s excellent post The Chess Detective fellow contributor Tim Hanke had this to say:

When I choose a move, I’m usually looking for a way to make a threat or develop a threat, or at least to gain time for future threats. So I’m focused on weak points in my opponent’s position, and determining how I might exploit them now or later. In quieter positions, I’m trying to find better positions for my pieces.

I replied:

Tim–it sounds like “prophylaxis” has not been dreamt of in your philosophy! Do you have “My System” in your collection?

Tim does have My System and may post about it in the future, he says. Just in case you are not familiar with it, My System was published in 1925-27 by Grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch and contains some fascinating material in response to the “oversimplifications” Nimzowitsch perceived in the teachings of Dr. Tarrasch. While I don’t want to go into it now, the two had quite a feud and you can read much more about it through a bit of searching. One of Nimzowitsch’s watchwords was “prophylaxis” which we can take to mean “prevention,” at base stopping the opponent’s ideas in their tracks before he can execute them. Chess players had been doing this all along of course, but Nimzowitsch laid a special emphasis on it.

I myself totally understand and empathize with Tim’s approach because it has mainly been my own, as well, through most of 30 years of competitive chess. From my point of view, an ideal game with either color was always play the e- and d-pawns forward two spaces, develop all the pieces in one move to aggressive squares, focus them on the other player’s king, check, check and MATE. Of course this is harder with black, but still, it’s the program.

In more recent times, I finally began to “get” what Nimzo was about when he wrote that every move doesn’t have to do something; there are moves to consolidate our own positions, moves to protect pieces and squares, moves to take away the opponent’s good moves and plans. As great a player as World Champion Petrosian often played this way and his success is obvious.

An example form my own practice: After 1. d4 b6 2. e4 Bb7 3. Bd3 e6 I would never have played 4. a3 in the old days because it “wastes” a move and doesn’t develop a piece. Of course it prevents black’s obviously intended pin on the knight soon to come to c3 but isn’t that “giving in” to the opponent already at move 4!?!?!

After I saw this move somewhere I played it several times and had tremendous results; black is going to be quite cramped while white smoothly develops everything and dominates in the center. Black is not “lost” of course but he’s already behind, especially psychologically because his whole strategy is based on Bb4.

I have a number of other examples which I will share in a “Part II” in the future. As a player who thought every move had to “do something” for so long I am a little late to the party, but I am now convinced that taking The Opponent into good account is a very important part of chess improvement, and that preventing him from doing what he wants to do to us is almost as important as knowing what to do to him!

Robert Pearson